Knitted, Knotted, Twisted & Twined: The Jewelry of Mary Lee Hu
February 7 – June 17, 2012
Bellevue Arts Museum
Pacific Northwest artists — with few exceptions (see Dale Chihuly, Jacob Lawrence and Mark Tobey) — have not fared well in obtaining national recognition through institutional forums such as books, catalogs and out-of-town museum and gallery exhibitions. Artists this far away from New York are easier to ignore and, among some collectors, curators and critics, there is a sense that local favorites are not necessarily worthy of a big push beyond the area. East Coast artists still fare better than West Coast artists and painters, while sculptors have always garnered more attention than jewelers. As a result, some very good American artists have remained under-known and under-evaluated. Area museums, however, have an exemplary record of assembling career retrospectives with monographs over the past two decades. Paramount among them are Tacoma Art Museum and Bellevue Arts Museum in the Puget Sound region of Washington State. The latter was the site of Knitted, Knotted, Twisted & Twined: The Jewelry of Mary Lee Hu.
Almost all the elements for greater recognition save one (a national or even regional tour) are in place for Hu with this survey: loans from major private collections and East Coast museums; big-name art critics and curators to author the catalogue essays; an elaborate, gorgeously designed full-color hardbound monograph and a major art museum venue. (Bellevue is now among the top ten decorative arts museums in the United States.) As we shall see when examining these elements, other surprising aspects have also been included in the mix — some good, some bad — that alternately reinforce and detract from the artist’s reputation. The catalogue contains essays by Jeannine Falino, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and Janet Koplos, craft historian and art critic. Each work in the exhibition is reproduced in color, with most accompanied by an extensive autobiographical note and technical explanation written by Hu.
For those who did not see the survey, a hushed gallery with dark walls contained a dozen or more display cases with pinpoint, state-of-the-art lighting and signage. BAM chief curator Stefano Catalani has brought European decorative arts museum installation and display standards to Bellevue so that viewers have ample illumination and elbowroom to circumambulate each piece and see all sides, above and below. With sensitive chronological spacing of clusters of objects, the effect was dramatic, but as with the catalog, for me, a bit too didactic. Wall labels were big, long and obtrusive. The catalog contains an extended glossary of jewelry-making terms in addition to the handsome color plates. Hu’s extensive comments on her work in the catalog set her intentions above any curatorial analysis by their length and, in general, emphasis is placed on process and procedures rather than meaning or content, as would be the case with fine art. However, what with hundreds of schoolchildren and students seeing the show, this is perhaps understandable. BAM’s education mission is hugely popular both with adults and young people who are, after all, the museum’s newest patrons and audiences of the future.
Having attended Miami University of Ohio, Hu went on to Cranbrook Academy to complete her BFA and thence to Southern Illinois University for her MFA under Brent Kington. It was while taking both a fiber art and a metals class that Hu, now 69, decided (with Kington’s approval) to make one piece to fulfill requirements for both courses. Forty-five years later, as private dealer and Hu collector, Donna Schneier told me, when I asked her about the exhibition, she is ‘Number one in the history of American gold jewelry.’ And, as former Smithsonian Renwick Gallery director and freelance curator Lloyd Herman put it when I spoke to him about the show, Hu and Arline Fisch ‘are unique in having been the first to explore textile techniques in jewelry.’
The overall effect of the exhibition design was one of restrained theatricality. Since gold is so shiny, it does not require much other than simple, secure display presentation with clear supports and stands, so the visitor can see all sides of each necklace or bracelet. Shimmering and beautiful, there was also an anthropological or artifactual atmosphere, as if all the objects were from a magical ancient culture, like the Scythians. Contained in one large room, the retrospective hypnotized viewers, many of whom were young people who made multiple visits and spent hours studying the art.
In order, the exhibition set out early pendants and earrings that used knotting. Next was an extraordinary group of insects and animals, including a turtle and squid, lizards, an ‘aquatic insect’ and dragon, made of fine silver and gold wire. They represent a direction that, sadly, the artist did not pursue. These were followed by her first Neckpieces (1972-74), also of silver and gold wire. Neckpiece #8 (1973) reminds us that the textile class at SIU was in macramé. This formerly maligned technique has lately been revived by gay fiber artists and others. Its mixture of knotting and loose strands becomes, in Hu’s hands, a shimmering and mysterious sculptural approach, one less wearable perhaps, but prescient in terms of predicting the subsequent natural-history allusions in the other Neckpieces (such as bird wings) and, more importantly, the comparatively improvised and gloriously loose-looking Forms #1-3 (1974) which draw upon Japanese woven basket forms, art nouveau pottery and glass, and add a unique reversibility of construction that allows each piece to be seen right-side up or upside down. The sculptural apex of Hu’s oeuvre thus far — with their interpolation of red-lacquered copper wire, robust, swirling lines of silver wire, and undeniably vulval imagery — the Forms are like jellyfish, their quivering beauty concealing possible red-alert danger. This is a previously unknown aspect of Hu, the ripe anatomical allusions and one that reinforces her status in three-dimensional art substantially. This was not pursued further because, as Jeannine Falino phrases it in her essay, ‘she would have made more than the five major Forms in this series if they had found devoted patrons.’
This is a startling claim and one that Hu told me when I spoke to her recently that she regretted not protesting before the text was published. Where was the bravery of the tenured faculty artist who is free to do as she wishes because her income is guaranteed? Was this a case of an artist wearing golden handcuffs, i.e., the luxury, comfort and stability of a fulltime teaching job? Did the comfort of the handcuffs outweigh the urge to continue making work that might not sell?
When I spoke to Albert Paley about Hu, he defended the special case for artists using gold. ‘Jewelry has always straddled one-of-a-kind pieces and production pieces. For every Fabergé egg, there were thousands of steel cigarette cases. You can call it art jewelry, but it straddles both worlds. You need the wearer to provide the context. The goldsmiths’ group is the most financially driven of all the crafts. It’s a real issue. You either meet the marketplace and water it down, or you stop doing them. Hu has always been an active professional who despite all this continued to focus and devote herself to her work.’
While hardly ‘watered down,’ Hu’s subsequent twined gold necklaces and cuffs gained greater market and museum attention as they continued to develop in nearly every significant way — color, line, scale —except innovative form or the radical risk-taking of Forms #1-3.
Returning to the catalog, Janet Koplos’s essay ‘Rewards of Constraint’ provides a superb contextual backgrounder to Hu’s achievement, but is weak on regional analogies, parallels and influences. It’s all very well to mention craft pioneers Hu was fully aware of before Seattle. Paley, Fisch, Richard Mawdsley, Marjorie Schick, Alexander Calder, and the Pijanowkis are all duly noted, but her important relationships to University of Washington teachers Ramona Solberg and John Marshall along with her influence on ex-student Flora Book go unmentioned. This is a pity because Solberg’s shared affinity for South Asian art and travel are significant and Marshall’s insight in hiring Hu to teach at the university seems worth examining as a valid part of American craft history, something in which Koplos is now seen as an expert. As John Marshall said to me when I asked him about why he hired her, Hu ‘was very solid, very traditional, with a really genuine sense of the craft. She played a strong role as far as detail goes. All of her work was done with precise finish.’ Koplos goes on to namedrop New Yorkers David Smith, Ibram Lassaw, Herbert Ferber, Theodore Roszak and Richard Lippold, none of whom (except for Smith) Hu was familiar with.
Apart from the craft processes that Koplos, Falino and Hu (the latter in over 3000 words of autobiographical comments on the illustrations) stress above all else, aren’t there any other qualities that isolate and distinguish Hu’s jewelry? Observed in Bellevue, these other aspects are double-edged. They include a uniformity of chromatic tone except for Chokers #35, #38, #40 and #43; a rejection of a volumetric sculptural path in favor of tensile transparency; a persistence of intimate scale that left more flamboyantly scaled necklaces behind in favor of a more ‘wearable’ (read marketable) flattened format; and a still inadequately explored and largely unacknowledged (in depth) debt to Asian art that would position her more within Pacific Northwest art.
How can Hu criticism and commentary improve after the super-supportive, cooperative chronicles of the catalog co-authors? After all, with scant serious analytical writing about her, most coverage has been, in her words, ‘descriptive.’ To that end, let us conclude by suggesting a few lines of inquiry for the art critics and art historians of the future to pursue.
In the same didactic spirit of the catalog, here are some imaginary assignments. (1) Explore further Hu’s links to aboriginal sources such as Native American baskets and Tibetan jewelry, thereby moving both from the margins to the center, a time-honored postmodern strategy; (2) adapt postcolonial theory (see Edward Said) and examine all of Hu’s time in Taiwan and her extensive travels in Asia after the death of her husband in order to extrapolate the influences on her art of such cultural encounters. Was she colonizing Asian metals or was the rising Asian powerhouse colonizing her? (3) look at Hu through a post-Marxist lens, i.e., document the growth of her art through the growth of her European and American collector base to see if one affected the other; and finally (4) consider the preponderance of cuffs, bracelets, choker necklaces and other constraining devices as the basis for a gender-based critique, including how men buy jewelry for women and how women now buy it for themselves.
One other prospect exists for Hu, according to Lloyd Herman, is designing for industrial or limited mass-production, something with which European craft artists have long been comfortable. This democratizes art and makes it more accessible. Hu’s designs would be unusually beautiful and more affordable. As Herman said to me, ‘Like that project at Reed and Barton (silversmiths) in the eighties, she could create something that could be industrially produced.’ That way the elite modernism of luxury goods could be dovetailed with the postmodern privileging of design over the handmade, adaptation of traditions and the risk of unexpected outcomes.
When I spoke to her, Hu was pondering her next steps. ‘I hope my work is going to take a jump. Now that I’m dealing more with form, I’m trying to push more ways of creating it.’ Whichever route Hu takes, it would seem she is on the precipice of another ‘jump.’